VI. It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness
I never desired normalcy. I spent my entire life trying to be as unique as possible in every way. For a full year in college, I ditched living in the customary drunken state and moved to Washington, D.C. and Florence, Italy. In our nation’s capital, I found myself brushing shoulders with the movers and shakers, like Sandra Day O’Connor and the Dalai Llama, while interning at the State Department. From D.C., I packed my bags, jumped on a jet plane and landed square in the home of a Duke and Duchess, who were nonetheless decedents of the House of Medici. Here I found myself scarfing down three course meals, and in between only taking a break to try out my broken Italian on an unlucky Duke who didn’t speak a lick of English. In my opinion, normal is unremarkable and forgettable and mediocre and worst of all, fails to make any of history’s greatest books. I don’t wish for things to go back to normal, mostly because for me there was never normal. Here’s what I do wish. I want to be one of those people who walks away from cancer without any visible scars and lives long enough to accumulate wrinkles. I can envision each wrinkle earned and hanging from my face like those medals hanging on a captain’s worn jacket fresh off the boat from battle. In my old age, I will cherish every wrinkle, for each will represent the perilous adventure, or the overcome battle, or the hard fought for accomplishment. A single wrinkle for taking a leap of faith and quitting my job, packing my life in a mere suitcase and moving to Ireland without knowing a single soul. Another wrinkle for proving my worth as the youngest MBA student at Trinity. Another for sharing a Guinness with Ireland’s Prime Minister. Five wrinkles for ditching my apartment to live with a commendable soul that stumbled into my life on New Years Day and stuck around to battle cancer instead of running a hundred miles an hour in the opposite direction. Those will be my five favorite and most cherished wrinkles. Then reality hits and shatters my beautiful vision with the realization that three out of ten people with my disease will not live more than another five years after diagnosis, and I’ve never so badly wished for wrinkles.
I am not alone in my stray from normalcy. I am convinced that my body gives off a unique aura attracting the most peculiar personalities. I put on my fiery blue wig of confidence and break into a bizarre universe. Everyone stares. And those few peculiar personalities make my heart smile for hours to come. When crossing the street, weirdoes waive frantically in their cars hoping to catch my attention. Eccentric souls stop me in Starbucks and exclaim that they wish their boss let them wear outrageously colored hair to work. Outlandish coworkers interrupt meetings with my manager to encourage me to rip off my wig.
As I laugh through the odd encounters, I can hear my stepmom’s voice ringing in my ears explaining that for her this was the worst part about cancer. Your appearance betrays you and the world responds with timid energy. Luckily for me, my eyebrows decided to stick around and when I put on my blonde lets-get-down-to-business wig, I’m an upgraded version of myself with a new stylish haircut. I’m absolutely sure that my stepmom is pulling some strings up there to ensure I didn’t endure the same pain. In my business wig, strangers and even coworkers fail to detect my disease. A fantastic colleague based in the big apple mentioned that a few coworkers cried during BDO’s service week because they chose to help cancer patients. She blurted, “Kids without their hair, can you imagine?” I am still laughing on the inside from all the irony and proud that she didn’t discover my disease or notice any change in my output at work. Cancer did not steal my identity.
In my ultimate quest to deviate from the norm, I must have subconsciously befriended an atypical cast of friends. This extraordinary bunch originating from different cities across the globe bonded over an MBA experience despite clashing cultures. Love shattered boundaries and voyaged across the world from Dublin to Split to Tokyo to Seattle to reach its final destination in Washington. Rushed on the way to a client meeting, I opened my mailbox and discovered that my MBA family, professors and classmates and friends alike, secretly raised funds to lift my spirits. My heart skipped a beat as I realized the strength of our bond and immediately planned my next adventure to Dublin, where it all began. To my MBA family, your generosity is overwhelming and despite geographical distance you’ve helped to lighten my heavy burden.
My burden is heaviest at nights. At night, the distraction of meetings, calls and emails is at bay and I am left in silence with my thoughts. The deafening silence is filled with the noise of a million truths racing through my mind. The truth that some friends and family consciously decided to exit my life when I needed them the most. The truth that I must expose my body to copious amounts of radiation from scans for the rest of my life. The truth that this might be my last stand and I have yet to leave my mark on the world. As these debilitating thoughts race on and challenge my confidence, my mind eventually stumbles upon and completely focuses on the highest truth. The truth that I am not alone. After nearly losing my certainty in the darkest nights, he makes me want to believe. Every step of the way that curious cat can be found distracting me from reality with his imaginative ways. This cat is dangerous in every sense of the word and, more often than not, we find ourselves in the most outrageous situations.
His latest distraction comes in a distorted form of every girls dream. This crafty cat volunteers us to help out on a political TV ad in support of Terry McAuliffe and his race to the Virginia governor’s mansion. Volunteer for a good cause? No problem. Then our exact roles flashed across my email:
I stopped breathing as I read the line “just holding out a ring” and then proceeded to nervously giggle at the assumption that this was “pretty simple stuff!” This curious cat found himself diving headfirst into the danger zone and I was highly entertained until I found myself sitting dead center in the middle of the spotlight. Picture this, me and that darn cat sitting cheek to cheek on a back porch bench, lights exposing every last detail, cameras following our every move and the crew critiquing every action. Camera rolls, action! That nimble cat jumps off the couch, gets down on one knee, dramatically holds out the ring while simultaneously looking up with those big enticing brown eyes. Either this cat is serious or he’s a pretty damn good actor. I’ll never know whether it was the cancer or my vulnerability, but I started sweating profusely while simultaneously letting out an edgy laugh. Needless to say, this is not the reaction the crew envisioned. That exact scenario played out at least four or five times until the camera caught something they deemed acceptable to show all of Virginia. I sat stunned in utter shock that the cat didn’t freeze right in his tracks, and now my mind is racing and this time not about the truths of cancer.
Today marks my fourth and final chemo and last stand against cancer. As the toxins run slowly through my veins, I am inevitably reflecting on my battle. I am more dangerous than before. I’ve learned that I can laugh when all I can see and hear and feel is horror. I laughed through my first biopsy, literally cracking jokes as I watched doctors stab my tumor trying to grasp a single cell with the largest needle I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned that crying is not shameful, it means I am alive. My tears rolled endlessly as the remaining stands of hair swirled slowly down the drain, evidence that I am alive enough to feel sorrow. I’ve learned that I can feel comfort through the worst pain. As my doctor was ripping bone from my back to stage my disease, I felt invincible hand in hand with my superhero blasting theme music. I’ve learned that even when I am all alone deafened by my racing thoughts, I am surrounded by hope. Hope from heroes who donated over $4,000 to my Light the Night team in search of a cure. (See for yourself here). I’ve learned that the key to survival is to escape reality into a world of imagination. As an escape, I created my own world of pirates and journeyed to the center of the universe. I’ve learned that if cancer can’t stop me, nothing ever will. Through the terror of it all, I strapped on my heels, pushed through the pain and stumbled to work. I’ve learned that if this were my last stand, I would not be satisfied with my mark on this world. What difference will I make? Above all other lessons, I brushed shoulders with death and managed to rediscover happiness. I love nothing more than to find myself sipping exquisite cappuccino while devouring a good book and slowly reading the best parts out loud to an enchanting cat. As the final drop enters my bloodstream, my mind comes full circle to where it all began, fuck cancer.
Holding fast to tradition, I’ll leave you with a proverb; It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
PS – In eight short weeks, I will have results from a scan to determine the outcome of my battle.
A great reminder that wrinkles are a blessing and an honour Lisa. I’m sure the next eight weeks will be very long and difficult. Wishing you all the luck in the world and will be thinking of you.